This time, I mean it about the deadline — and I always mean it about logical flow

I’m going to keep it short and semi-sweet today, campers — tomorrow, if you will recall, is the deadline for entries to The Sensual Surfeit Literary Competition of 2012, this year’s edition of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. To be specific, your fabulously-detailed scenes must be submitted by midnight in your time zone on Monday, December 3.

Some helpful links for those of you whose writing chops bloom under last-minute pressure: you’ll find the rules here. You’ll also find, for your rushed entry-proofing pleasure, a handy post in which I show precisely what a winning entry for this contest might look like on the page. You’re welcome; have at it.

I have a nice treat in store for all of us once contest-entrants once again have time to read, something that I think is really going to provide a launching-pad for some fabulous big-picture discussion. I’d like to free up some time for those of who whose creative brains are this very instant suggesting, “Hey, Mavis, I know you hadn’t planned on entering this contest, despite the genuinely pretty great prizes, but wouldn’t that scene in Chapter Five precisely fit the bill?”, though, so for the nonce, let’s concentrate upon something nit-picky.

Fortunately for the cause of relative brevity (hey, we are talking about me here), as so often happens, the universe leapt to provide an apt blogging topic for our immediate need. See if you can spot the notorious editorial pet peeve in the following sentence, courtesy of a news program’s bottom-of-the-screen eye distraction headline ticker. So as not to tar the catastrophe in question with the additional stigma of reader-irritant, I have altered the sentence’s subject matter.

The governor blamed the storm on the extensive flooding.

My, that would be newsworthy, wouldn’t it? How unusual for flooding, extensive or otherwise, to cause a storm, rather than the other way around. May we also conclude that sand build-up on a beach is the ultimate culprit for all of those waves?

This kind of sentence has resulted in more handfuls of editors’ and agents’ hair ending up on carpets, parquet, and desktops than I can even begin to estimate. It’s unclear, of course, but in a way that the rise of reality television, misread teleprompters, and hastily-typed Tweets has led your garden-variety member of the general reading public to shrug and accept: the sentence’s running order runs counter to what the reader must assume was the writer’s intended meaning.

Causation, in short, is flipped here. (Either that, or that governor’s mental processes could bear some psychological scrutiny.) What the writer almost certainly meant — and what the news program’s producers were evidently cavalier enough to presume viewers would be willing to put in the effort to extract from this convoluted logic — was this.

The governor blamed the extensive flooding on the storm.

Not nearly such an eye-catching headline, admittedly, but I hope we can all agree that this version poses less of a brain-teaser. It’s also, to be purely practical about it, significantly less likely to cause a professional reader like our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to stop reading.

Does that immense clank of ten thousand jaws hitting the aforementioned floor tiles indicate that we hadn’t discussed this sad fact in a while? I hate to be the one to break it to those of you brand-new to the submission process, but due to the sheer volume of aspiring writers clamoring for their literary attention and the concomitant necessity to narrow tens of thousands of requested manuscripts down to the four or five new clients even a very well-established agent could hope to take on this year, Millicent tends not to read each and every submission in its entirety before passing judgment upon it. She simply does not have the time.

She does not, in short, approach each fresh manuscript like an ordinary reader, any more than her boss, the agent of your dreams, or the acquiring editor you’d like to pick up your book would. Generally speaking, at least for a submission’s opening pages, Millie will read one or two lines. If they are well-written, book category-appropriate, current market-appropriate, presented professionally, and sound like the kind of book her boss likes to represent, she’ll move on.

For a line, whereupon the assessment process begins anew. Repeat as needed until a rejection red flag pops up — or Millicent becomes sufficiently engrossed in the story to follow it for its own sake.

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, the overwhelming majority of submissions to agencies get rejected on page 1. Can you imagine how many Millicents a truly popular agent would have to hire if they did not?

Oh, dear, I didn’t mean to send those of you new to this blog curling into the fetal position. “But Anne,” shocked writers everywhere moan, and who could blame you? “Speaking of logic, that doesn’t make sense. Why would an agent request a full manuscript if he doesn’t intend to read all of it?”

In a word, time. Some small fraction of those requested manuscripts will make it past Millicent’s line-by-line scrutiny, after all, and isn’t it fortunate that she’ll have the rest of those books on hand when she does? If all the agent asked to see was the opening page or two (which, I should note, some agencies do ask queriers to include; check individual submission requirements), then Millie would have to stop after being wowed by an opening, contact the writer, and ask for another chunk. If her boss asked for the full manuscript, she can simply read on.

To be fair, requesting the full manuscript used to mean precisely what excited successful queriers and pitchers still usually believe it does: that the query or pitch excited great professional interest on the agency end. In days of yore — which is to say: more than years ago, a lifetime in a trend-based business — the usual positive response entailed asking to see the first 50 pages, or perhaps the opening chapter.

Before you sigh gustily and long for a time machine, so you could pop back to the 1980s, land an agent, and wing back to find yourself a well-established and long-beloved author, though, consider this: accepting electronic queries or submissions was unheard-of then. Many an aspiring writer still produced her manuscripts on typewriters then, rendering very real the possibility that she would accidentally send an agent her old copy. It would also have been much, much harder for that writer to learn much of anything about the agents she intended to approach: agencies posting websites at all is a relatively recent phenomenon, even by Internet standards.

Does any or all of that make you feel better about the fact that the advent of widespread personal computer ownership and the later easy access to worldwide connectivity have caused an astronomical rise in the number of queries and submissions those agents receive in any given week? Probably not, at least if you’re like the hefty majority of first-time submitters who believe that the only factor an agent or editor could possibly consider in deciding whether to acquire a manuscript is the quality of the writing.

Oh, are some of you still curled up like shrimp? I am sorry. “This logic is making my head spin,” those maintaining the fetal position protest. “I get that agencies are busy, busy places, but how is it possible to judge the talent of a writer of book-length works by the first, second, or fiftieth line of text? Shouldn’t novels be judged, you know, as a whole?”

In an ideal world, yes, but as you may have noticed, we don’t live in one.

Or so those of us who read for a living surmise from the fact that the reading public is perpetually barraged with so many logically-convoluted sentences every day. Apparently, we’re all just expected to rearrange the running order ourselves. In a well-ordered universe, that surely would not be the case.

Admittedly, that’s not all that difficult in our example — unless either the news ticker-writer or the governor knows something about how storms work that the rest of us do not, reason dictates only one possible intended meaning, right? Storms cause flooding, not the other way around. But as any hair-rending agent, editor, or literary contest judge would be only too glad to tell you, it’s the writer’s job to produce clear text, not the reader’s job to guess what the writer actually meant.

Or, to put it another way, logical flow is the minimum requirement in professional writing, not an optional extra. Readers of published books have a completely legitimate right to expect every sentence in a narrative to make sense, without having to put in the extra effort required to change running order, as I did above.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought (and quite loudly, too), logical flow is not just the acquiring editor’s problem. Yes, your future publisher will most likely employ copyeditors to spot this type of gaffe, but in the current over-stuffed literary battleground, it’s rare that editors, contest judges, or agents will not expect a talented writer serious about getting published to proofread his work closely enough to catch it himself.

Ah, how gratifying: my regular readers automatically shouted that they habitually read every syllable they submit or enter IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD. That’s solid strategy, as well as the best way to weed out such inadvertent errors. It’s also a means of obtaining a competitive edge at submission time, because, frankly, the overwhelming majority of manuscripts appear to Millicent not to have been proofread at all.

Heck, many of them don’t appear to be spell-checked. Folks seem to be in too much of a hurry.

That’s a genuine pity, because as I like to point out early and often on this blog, one of the double-edged differences between writing on a typewriter and composing on a computer lies in the latter’s comparative ease of revision. Changing even a single word in a sentence used to require White-Out (ask your grandparents, children); altering a description could require retyping entire pages. And let’s not even talk about how much easier automatic pagination makes life for writers; imagine having to renumber pp. 328-472 by hand, just because you had a second thought about that scene ending on page 327.

Don’t see a down side to being able to copy and paste your favorite paragraph from Chapter 3 and plunk it down in Chapter 1, where a line-by-line reader like Millicent might be better able to appreciate it, or to insert a startling new descriptor in a formerly lackluster sentence without being forced to ink over the original verbiage? Millie does: all too often, a self-editor in a hurry will forget to read over the resulting scene, to check for logical flow. The result, I tremble to report, frequently looks like this:

“What is that a tidal wave?” Gabriella glanced toward the horizon, turning toward the window. “I’m worried by that news report. Maybe I should see what the ocean is doing today.”

Oh, you may laugh, but Millicent actually does see incomplete revisions this logically mixed-up. Yes, we could invest the energy in figuring out the possible intended running orders, but is it legitimate for the author to expect us to determine whether she meant to say this?

“I’m worried by that news report. Maybe I should see what the ocean is doing today.” Gabriella turned toward the window, glancing toward the horizon. “What is that? A tidal wave?”

Or this?

“What is that?” A tidal wave?” Gabriella glanced toward the horizon, checking for violent cloud activity.

Musette remained focused upon her newspaper and warm fire. “Yes, I’m worried by that news report, too. Maybe we should see what the ocean is doing today.”

Quite different situations, are they not? Can you think of any particular advantage the writer of the original version derived from expecting us to tinker with the logic to this extent?

Only one strikes me as at all likely: time. Our author was in a hurry, clearly, either at initial composition time or when revising this excerpt. Perhaps he even intended to come back and rework it, but all of a sudden, Millie’s boss, the agent of his dreams, requested the manuscript. Besides, a copyeditor will catch any lingering problems down the line, right?

Perhaps — but she might not get the chance, if Millicent stops reading. And could you really blame Millie for not fighting her way through the twisted version?

Since a disturbingly high proportion of you just mentally shouted, “Yes! It’s her job to see past the rough edges to the underlying brilliance of that submission,” allow me to tinker with this example in order to render it more reflective of what screeners often see. Slip into Millicent’s well-worn moccasins for a moment, and picture a manuscript featuring the following four gems on three consecutive pages:

Jacob ran his hands through his full head of hair. “I can’t believe I forgot to proofread the news ticker before put it on air.”

Arleen reached a sympath hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Jared. It could happen anybody.”

Still reading, Millie? You’re a trooper. We’ll press on with you.

“But Governor,” Jared gasped, slapping his bald scalp, “you can’t be serious! I can’t tell viewers that gravity is no longer operational?”

Governor Medfly frowned. “Our citizenry deserves we can’t lie to them to know the truth.”

Persisting in your love of literature? Read on.

The house would soon be swamped by the rising flood, that was apparent. {Insert some show-don’t-tell stuff here.} Boats were already flying into the sky, knocking rain from the ominous cloud cover.

Stop rolling your eyes at me; submissions occasionally turn up in agencies with writers’ revision notes included this obviously. So do contest entries. (I speak from experience, but because I love you people, I shan’t induce nightmares by describing any specific occasion.)

Let’s say for the sake of argument, though, that Millicent has become intrigued by the fascinating pretzels into which the laws of physics seem to be bending themselves in this manuscript. Let’s take a gander at the context for the earlier example.

Water flew skyward. Droplets covered the window so rapidly that she had to open it to see the horizon.

“What is that a tidal wave?” Gabriella glanced toward the horizon, turning toward the window. “I’m worried by that news report. Maybe I should see what the ocean is doing today.”

Musette squirmed in her cozy chair. “The governor said not to worry. Knock it off your whining, already.”

Starting to sense a pattern here? Millicent would. Clearly, this is a manuscript still in the throes of revision; it might be wonderful down the line — I, for one, would like to know how that whole sky-flooding thing works out for Gabriella and the gov — but it certainly is not yet ready for publication. So why, Millie is left to wonder, did the author send it now, rather than when the revision-in-progress was complete?

I can answer that one: time. The author may not have any more of it to spare than Millicent or her boss. The crucial difference, though, is that while rushing an unproofed manuscript out the door — often, these days, by the simple expedient of hitting SEND — will usually merely save the fine folks at the agency some time, it can doom the author to rejection. Think about it: what would tell a busy agent that this would be a time-consuming author to represent more effectively than the run of text we’ve just seen? Wouldn’t some luckless soul at the agency have to proofread everything he submitted before the agent could possibly submit it to a publishing house?

So yes, knee-huggers, it is a trifle unfair to judge an entire manuscript by just a few lines, but most professional readers can tell pretty quickly whether that small logic flow problem on page 2 is indicative of a larger pattern across the manuscript. Manuscript gaffes are like ants, after all: one does occasionally see one trudging along in isolation, but generally speaking, they travel in groups.

Oh, you thought that the news ticker text contained only one faux pas? Want to help me count up the number of necessary apostrophes it omitted that day, or how many repetitions it took before someone on staff noticed that Egypt had been spelled without a y?

As I said, we see evidence of writing haste all the time, but that does not mean that the level of gaffe-forgiveness most of us extend to our e-mail correspondents has permeated the publishing industry’s expectations for exciting new manuscripts. Take the time to make sure your text makes sense, not only on the story level, but in every sentence as well.

Millicent’s scalp will thank you. Old time may be still a-flying, but her lovely hair need not. Keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part III: hot, hot, hot. And had I mentioned it was warm?

Ah, the gentle days of April, when the daffodils begin dancing, steel-blue storm clouds loom on the horizon, and the neighbors finally get around to burning the long-lingering remnants of their Christmas tree. Why, it seems only a few weeks ago that the locals took down their holiday lights. Perhaps because the neighbors on the other side of us still have theirs up.

Hey, winters are dark in Seattle. So, apparently, are early springs. We could all use a little extra twinkling on the block.

To set the minds of those of you who have been clutching your chests in anticipation of a house fire at ease: no, my neighbors didn’t torch it in their fireplace; I shot this photo at their fire pit. I had been prowling the environs, searching for an image to illustrate our topic du jour. I couldn’t be happier, really. What, after all, would remind a self-editing writer more of structural repetition — the phenomenon of a writer’s falling in love with a certain kind of sentence and consequently over-using it throughout a manuscript — than dry fir needles consumed in flame?

“But Anne,” redundancy enthusiasts across the writing world protest, “I don’t get it, and until I get it, I’m not going to stop repeating words, phrases, and imagery on the page. So I challenge you: how are these two apparently unrelated things akin?”

That’s a perfectly legitimate question from a writerly point of view, repetition-huggers, but from an editorial perspective, the connection is self-evident: Christmas comes but once a year. So does one’s birthday, generally speaking. No matter how much one might enjoy celebrating either, it’s not reasonable to expect others to keep bringing you presents three times a month just because you claim today, tomorrow, and next Thursday that it’s one or the other.

Too abstruse? Okay, what about this one? No matter how brightly that fir branch burns, it is pretty only for a moment. Ashes have their charm, of course, but trying to rekindle them is a futile endeavor.

Too heavy-handed? Okay, metaphor police, try this one on for size: the branch you see above looked very nice on the Christmas tree. It is also attractive in the photo, in a different context. But had the neighbors set the Christmas tree in the fire pit without setting it ablaze, passersby would have murmured, “Hey, don’t they know Christmas was months ago?”

Starting to get the picture now? Yes, the fir was lovely covered in ornaments; we all saw that through your window. It was less pretty in February. And it was downright droopy in March. Today, in April, it’s nothing but a fire hazard.

That doesn’t mean, though, that a creative person couldn’t make it pretty again, but you’re going to need to do more than just stand it up and admire it as you did before, neighbor. You’re going to need to put some effort into transforming it. It’s going to need to appear to be fundamentally different.

What do you think? Have I have milked that image for all it’s worth yet? No? Okay, in case I’ve been too subtle for the literal-minded: after using a pet phrase once, give it a rest, will ya?

I see you smirking smugly, those who believe that you never repeat yourselves on the page. “Darned good advice, Anne,” you say warmly, “but not at all applicable to me. Every syllable I commit to paper is 100% original, both in the history of literature and within my own opus.”

I applaud you if that is actually the case, smug smirkers, but if this is your first manuscript, it probably isn’t: most writers have go-to phrases, metaphors, and even sentences that they trot out at least every hundred pages or so, whether they realize it or not. And don’t even get me started on how often manuscripts repeat lines of dialogue.

We saw why last time: if phrasing or an insight sounded good the first time around, it tends to sound good the second, third, and fifty-seventh as well. And if you’re like most writers new to the game, you probably have been writing your book over an extended period. Are you absolutely positive that the great sentence you wrote yesterday is entirely different than the one you wrote six months ago? Do you truly remember every syllable you wrote back in 2008?

No longer so sure, are you? Here’s the best way to recapture that peace of mind I so rudely disrupted: sit down and re-read your submission IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and, even better, OUT LOUD, just to double-check.

It’s in your best interest to do this before you send it off to an agent, editor, or contest judge. And certainly before you smirk smugly at the rest of us.

But definitely before you submit, because, trust me, even if that simile you adore on p. 22 does not recur until p. 384, chances are better than even that our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, will notice and deplore the repetition. So will her boss, the agent of your dreams, and even if it gets past both, the editor to whom the agent shows your manuscript will almost certainly catch it.

Why am I so sure of that? Well, submissions and contest entries so often contain substantial word and phrase repetition; one does not have to read professionally for very long to begin to build an aversion to the sight of it — and an eye that zeroes in on it.

Human nature, I’m afraid. The more one wants to look away from a tragedy, the more one is compelled to look.

To most of us who read manuscripts for a living, a manuscript that keeps recycling sentence structures, pet phrases, or even individual words might as well be covered with flashing neon signs. Don’t believe me? Okay, here is a page stuffed to the gills with one of the more common types of repetition, the over-use of proper nouns in general and character names in particular. I’ve made the image a trifle larger than usual, to render the pattern easier to spot.

In fact, you don’t even have to read the text to notice it: stand up, back away from your computer until you can’t make out individual words, then walk slowly toward the screen until individual words start to come into focus. Ready, set — observe!

Let me take a wild guess: on your return trip, all of those Js and Ps were the first thing you saw, were they not? I hate to break it to you, but a sharp-eyed pro like Millicent would have had that reaction scanning the page at a normal reading distance.

Well might you gulp. Once you got close enough to read the page in its entirety, I’m guessing that it did not seem all that repetitious to you. That’s fairly normal for writers who have not yet enjoyed the traumatic scrutiny lambasting benefit of professional feedback: for some reason my extensive editing experience leaves me powerless to explain, most aspiring writers seem to believe that if the word being repeated is a name, it’s impossible to over-use it.

They are, in a word, wrong. We shall see why in a bit, once your eye has had a chance to develop.

In the meantime, let’s take a gander at how the visual pattern problem is exacerbated if the sentence structure is also repetitious. To render this tortured page even more likely to annoy our Millie, I’ve selected a common construction in the passive voice.

Again, back up from the screen, then slink forward. What does your eye notice first?

Starting to see more than one pattern? I hope so: your eye might have been drawn to the repetition of was or one before or after the capital letters in the proper nouns, but now that you’re looking for it, this page seems to contain a smaller variety of words than our first example, right?

Even if the repeated words did not jump out at you, you probably noticed that this version was quite a bit less amusing to read. I wouldn’t be at all astonished if you were tempted not to read it all the way to the end; Millicent would have had more or less the same reaction.

Why? Well, although the page was not in fact made up entirely of it was X and it was as though sentences, it certainly began to feel like it by halfway down the page, didn’t it? If you were a Millicent trying to work her way through a pile of 247 submissions before your hot date tonight, wouldn’t you at least consider shouting, “Next!” and moving down the stack?

Some of you were doing the math, weren’t you? Yes, doubters, it would in fact be possible for Millie to get through that many submissions — if, say, her agency asks queriers to send the first five pages with a query — in a single day. It would be a long day, admittedly, but if she limited herself to just a couple of minutes with each, setting aside those with promise until she had more time to attend to them, she actually could plow through that stack quite expeditiously.

Because where are most submissions rejected, camper? Chant it with me now: on page 1.

So if you were occupying her desk chair and spotted a page 1 as wording-repetitious as that last example, would you continue reading for a few pages, hoping that the vocabulary level will rise? Or would you thankfully conclude that you don’t need to spend much time on this one and reject it in 32 seconds, so you could afford to read page 2 of a submission with more promise?

Don’t tell me what you would want Millicent to do if it were your submission; we’re talking principle here. And no, she can’t spend an extra hour screening today; that hot date involves a quick drink, a play, and a late dinner. You wouldn’t want her to miss the curtain, would you, much less that post-work drink?

Okay, maybe you would, but seriously, most folks that read for a living would have a similar reaction to that page 1, even if they haven’t had a truly hot date since 1982. A trained eye would be drawn immediately toward those patterns — and thus away from other aspects of the text a savvy writer might want a professional reader to notice instead, such as the compelling storyline, the interesting characters, and/or the overall beauty of the writing.

Weren’t expecting that twist, were you? You’d better sit down, because the news gets worse: because repetition in general and structural repetition in particular are so very common in submissions, Millicent and her ilk not only find it distracting; they tend to regard it a symptom of both a small authorial vocabulary and weak writing. So you might want to think twice about incorporating much repetition into your preferred authorial voice. Especially in your opening pages — which, lest we forget, folks who screen manuscripts for a living are prone to regard, rightly or not, as representative of the writing in the rest of the manuscript.

Hey, I told you to sit down.

Now that you’re already depressed into a stupor, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: if the sentence structure and vocabulary on page 1 don’t show much variation, Millicent’s unlikely to keep reading until page 50 to find out whether these traits are consistent features of the author’s chosen voice. Heck, she probably won’t turn to page 2 to confirm that suspicion.

It’s hard to blame her, given the provocation. As we saw in the second example, even when the word choices are diverse enough to keep things moderately interesting, it’s simply more tiring to read the same kind of sentence over and over than to read text where the form varies more.

That’s true, incidentally, regardless of the subject matter. Even an inherently fascinating topic can quickly be rendered stultifying by the simple expedient of writing about it in structurally similar sentences. Repetitive phraseology can render even the most exciting, conflict-ridden scene quite a bit less nail-biting than its activity level should dictate. That’s true, surprisingly, even if the chosen structure is quite complex.

Pop quiz to evaluate your eye’s progress: which bugged you more in that last paragraph, my reuse of the that’s true + adverb structure, or the recycling of even? By this point, I would hope that neither escaped your attention.

Let’s observe the soporific effect of a more complicated repeated structure in action. So I don’t plunge all of you into a deep, refreshing slumber, I shan’t subject you to an entire page of it, but merely a quick excerpt.

Obviously, no one deliberately plans to crash a motorcycle into the side of a cross-town bus, but that is precisely what Barnaby did. Fortunately, he was wearing his inflatable jumpsuit, saving him from significant injury, but clearly, his morning was not going to be a smooth one. Resignedly, he collected his scattered belongings, including the small thermonuclear device he later planned to smuggle stealthily into the state dinner, but he could not resist vehemently cursing under his breath.

Call me a zany idealist, but I believe in my heart of hearts that a scene with stakes this high could have been written about in a slightly more compelling manner. There’s more to good storytelling than just getting all of the facts down on the page, after all. To see why, we need look no farther than the early reader books of our youth.

You know the type, right? See Spot run. See Spot bite Dick. See Dick shiv Jane. Stab, Dick, stab.

Dull, from an adult perspective, weren’t they? But dull with a purpose: part of their point was to encourage new readers to recognize letter patterns as particular words. Varying the sentence structure enough to render the insipid story interesting to more advanced readers would merely have distracted from the task at hand.

So we were treated to the same sentence structure for what seemed like the entire book. I have a distinct memory of taking my kindergarten copy of FROG FUN home from school (Hop, frog, hop. Hop, hop, hop: hardly Thackeray), reading a two pages of it to my father, and both of us deciding simultaneously that no self-respecting human being would keep slogging through that much narrative repetition. And where was the character development? Pages on end about frogs, and the reader could not tell one from the next. What were their individual hopes, their dreams, their personal preferences in lily pads?

He wrote a very amusing little note to my teacher about it. Suffice it to say that my teacher quickly learned to send me to the library for alternate reading material. And stopped teaching kindergarten shortly thereafter. I’m told that she still winces whenever she sees a frog.

It’s even easier to make Millicent wince — at any given moment, her to-read pile overfloweth with submissions that, if not as word-repetitious as FROG FUN, have fairly obviously not been carefully revised with an eye to sentence variation. That’s a pity, because when a professional reader sees a manuscript that uses the same sentence structure or the same few verbs use over and over, the specters of Dick, Jane, and Spot seem to rise from the page, moaning, “This is not very sophisticated writing!”

Why, you gasp? Well, when one’s eye is trained to note detail, it’s doesn’t take much redundancy to trigger a negative reaction.

In fact, a good professional reader will often catch a repetition the first time it recurs — as in the second time something is mentioned in the text. It’s not unheard-of for an editorial memo to contain a livid paragraph about the vital necessity to curb your inordinate fondness for phrase X when phrase X shows up only three or four times in the entire manuscript.

As in over the course of 382 pages. Had I mentioned that we pros are trained to be extremely sensitive to redundancy?

Imagine, then, how much more annoying they find it when every third sentence begins with a structure like, Blinking, Sheila backed away or George was…” or the ever-popular, As Beatrice was doing X, Y happened.

That last one caught you a bit off guard, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised: if an alien from the planet Targ were to base its understanding of human life solely upon the frequency with which protagonists in first novels do something as something else occurs, it would be forced to conclude that humanity is doomed to perpetual multitasking. Either that, or it would surmise that the space-time continuum is somehow compressed by the mere fact of someone’s writing about it.

Oh, you laugh, but how else could the poor visitor to our solar system possibly interpret a passage like this?

As Monique turned the corner, she spotted Clarence. He dodged sideways as she came up to him. While he was looking for someplace convenient to hide, she calmly unearthed a crossbow from her purse.

Aiming, she cleared her throat. “The jig’s up, Clarence.”

That’s quite a bit of activity happening simultaneously — and quite a few logically similar sentence structures shouldering one another for prominence. But contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact that two things occurred at the same time is not particularly interesting to most readers. Unless the simultaneity of the motions in question is crucial to the reader’s understanding what’s going on, as and while can be awfully easy to overuse.

How so? Well, let me put it this way: if our imaginative little run-in with the Targian had not tipped you off in advance, would you have noticed that there were two things going on contemporaneously in every sentence in that last example?

If not, you aren’t alone. Most aspiring writers — i.e., the folks who have not yet had the professional opportunity to hear an editor go on a tirade about such things — would not see a problem with that excerpt. Millicent, however, would, and that’s likely to spark some rather unpleasant consequences at submission time.

So how might a savvy reviser rearrange that passage so as to leave Millie’s eyebrows mercifully unraised? Vary the sentence structure — and cut out any extraneous activity.

While you’re at it, reserve as for those relatively rare occasions when it’s imperative that the reader be made aware that things happened at the same time. The result might look a little bit like this:

Monique strode around the corner, surprising Clarence so much that he dropped his bullwhip. While he was looking for someplace convenient to hide, she calmly unearthed a crossbow from her purse.

Carefully, she took aim at his Adam’s apple. “The jig’s up, my friend.”

The contrast between this version and the previous one is pretty stark, is it not? That’s not merely a matter of style, but of phrasing variety. To repetition-sensitive eyes, a page filled with structural and word repetition is like badly-done CGI in movies, where battle scenes between thousands of characters are created by filming 50 extras flailing at one another, copying that image, and plastering it seventeen times across the scene, perhaps alternated with two or three other images of the same actors in different positions. Honestly, to those of us who count patterns for a living, that level of repetition can be downright migraine-inducing.

“Wait just a nit-picking minute, Anne!” I hear some conscientious revisers exclaiming. “I don’t mean to cling slavishly to my dog-eared copy of Strunk & White, but English grammar only permits so many ways of arranging sentences properly. Isn’t any manuscript going to exhibit a certain amount of pattern repetition, necessarily?”

Yes, of course — but that does not give writers carte blanche to use the same structures back-to-back for paragraphs on end, or to utilize a favorite complex sentence form four times per page. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s not as though your garden-variety writer is repeating herself on purpose: in the vast majority of instances, the writer simply likes a kind of sentence or a particular verb enough to use it often.

You lucky souls, however, are going to be one up on that kind of writer come revision time, because we’re about to take a run at spotting the phenomenon in its natural habitat. Since my last post’s foray into A TALE OF TWO CITIES was so obvious, let’s tackle a comparatively subtle one this time around the submission desk.

Rubbing his sides for warmth, Sven glanced unhappily at his fellow cheerleaders. Waving his pom-poms in a wan impression of good sportsmanship, he reminded himself never to be stupid enough to accept one of his sister’s bets again. Pulling up his flesh-colored tights –- oh, why hadn’t he listened to Kenro, who had told him to wear nylons under them on this near-freezing night? –- he wondered if Tamara would be vicious enough to demand the performance of the promised splits before the game ended. Sighing, he figured she would.

How did you do? Individually, there is nothing wrong with any given sentence in this paragraph, right? Yet taken communally — as sentences in submissions invariably are — the repetition of the same kind of opening each time starts to ring like a drumbeat in Millicent’s head, distracting her from the actual subject matter, the quality of the writing, and, alas, even the blistering pace you worked so hard to achieve on the page.

That’s not just a voice problem — it’s a marketing problem. Why? Well, think about it: very, very few agents and editors can afford to work with specialists in a single type of sentence.

And don’t start waving random pages ripped from Ernest Hemingway’s oeuvre at me, either. Present-day readers expect a narrative with a broad array of sentence structures. It’s simply more amusing to read.

Sadly, most of the time, writers don’t even realize it when they’re repeating patterns. Unless the repetition bug has really bitten them, the redundancy isn’t in every sentence, and it’s not as though most writers have the foresight, patience, or even time to re-read an entire scene each time they revise a sentence or two of it. Much less to go over it IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD.

Why, yes, that was redundant, now that you mention it. FROG FUN taught me that was the way to make a point memorably.

To be fair, though, repetition often lies in words or phrases that are similar, but not identical, so the writer does not think of them as the same word. Consider:

Casmir began sweating, sweating as though his sweat glands were going on strike tomorrow. Should he go to the window and throw it open, beginning the cooling-down process? Or should he go downstairs, into the basement, to the cool of the pickle cellar, to await the stellar offer on his house? Or should he wait for the seller on the cooler porch?

Subtle, isn’t it? Sometimes, the structures a writer favors may be common enough in themselves that she would need to read her pages IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch the problem. As in:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted, “because I had no reason.”

“But you did take it,” Edmund shot back, “because you needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Claire’s eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, since you don’t know her.”

These three lines of dialogue feature different words, but they sport identical structures. This may not seem like a serious problem on any given page, but once a professional reader notices a manuscript exhibiting this kind of repetition over the course of few exchanges, she will simply assume — feel free to sing along; you should know the words by now — that the pattern will recur throughout the manuscript. She’s usually right, too.

How does she know, you ask? Experience, my dears, experience. How many horror films did you have to see before you realized that the monster/killer/Creature from the Black Lagoon wasn’t really dead the first time it appeared to be?

Oh, you thought I was going to use that the monster always returns trope only once in this series? Good eye, those of you who caught it.

Rather than resting on your laurels, though, go back and re-read that last example out loud. Did you notice how similar those three paragraphs sound in the mouth, almost as though they were not the words of two different speakers? The repetitive structure here makes Claire and Edmund speak in essentially the same rhythm, as though they were echoes of the same voice.

Which, from an authorial point of view, they are. That doesn’t mean that the reader won’t want to preserve the illusion that those speeches are falling from different pairs of lips.

When two characters speak in the same rhythm, it mutes the conflict between them a little — not to mention making it harder for the reader to follow the dialogue. Check out how varying the sentence structure ramps up the tension between these characters, even in an excerpt this short:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted. “I had no conceivable reason.”

“You lie,” Edmond shot back. “You needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, me bucko, since you don’t know her.”

“Aha! I knew you were concealing a pirate past!”

“I ought to keel-haul you.” Sullenly, she tore off her eye patch. “What gave me away, the parrot?”

Nifty, eh? That, in case you were wondering, is the kind of character development benefit a writer is likely to derive from reading her work OUT LOUD. I just mention.

A writer need not only pay attention to how many times he’s using the same words or similar sentence structures in back-to-back sentences, but also on any given page, as well as over the course of a scene. Let’s take a look at how non-consecutive repetition might play out in practice.

As the car door opened, Beatrice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Lance’s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Lance, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary.

To most self-editors, this paragraph would not seem especially problematic. Yet it contains two of the most commonly-repeated structures, our old friends, the While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was Z…. Standing alone as individual sentences, either form is perfectly valid; the problem arises when either appears too frequently on the page.

Still having trouble seeing it? To a professional reader, this is how the paragraph above would scan:

As the car door opened, Beatrice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Lance‘s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Lance, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary.

See how even spread-out repetition jumps off the page, once you’re sensitized to it? Millicent (and her boss, and the editors at the publishing house across the street, and even the average contest judge after reading the first handful of entries) is so attuned to it that she might not even have made it as far as the end of the paragraph.

To use the most overworked word in Millie’s vocabulary: “Next!”

Of course, you may strike lucky: your submission may be read by a screener who hasn’t been at it very long, a contest judge brand-new to the game, or an agent whose tolerance for pattern repetition is unusually high. Heck, your work may even land on the desk of that rara avis, the saint who is willing to overlook some minor problems in a manuscript if the writer seems to have promising flair. In any of these cases, you may be able to put off winnowing out pattern repetition until after the book is sold to an editor.

Who, frankly, is most unlikely to be so forgiving. So do you honestly want to gamble on Millicent’s possible saintliness at the submission stage, or would you prefer to take care of this little problem now?

Where should you begin? Well, the beginning is always a nice place to start. Since editorial response to this kind of repetition tends to be so strong — I wasn’t kidding about those migraines — you would be well advised to check your first chapter, especially your opening page, for inadvertent pattern repetitions. (Actually, since quick-skimming pros tend to concentrate upon the openings of sentences, you can get away with just checking the first few words after every period, in a pinch. But you didn’t hear that from me.)

The most straightforward way to do this is to sit down with five or ten pages of your manuscript and a number of different colored pens. Highlighters are dandy for this purpose. Mark each kind of sentence in its own color; reserve a special color for nouns and verbs that turn up more than once per page. You probably already know what your favorite kinds of sentence are, but it would be an excellent idea to pre-designate colors for not only the ever-popular While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was… sentences, but also for the X happened and then Y happened and Gerund Adverb Comma (as in Sitting silently, Hortense felt like a spy) forms as well.

After you have finished coloring your pages, arrange all of the marked-up pages along some bare and visually uncomplicated surface — against the back of a couch, along a kitchen counter, diagonally across your bed — and take three steps backward. (Sorry, kitty; I didn’t mean to step on your tail.)

Does one color predominate? If you notice one color turning up many times per page — or two or three times per paragraph – you might want to think about reworking your structures a little.

If this all seems terribly nit-picky to you, well, it is. But the more you can vary the structure and rhythm of your writing, the more interesting it will be for the reader –- and, from a professional perspective, the more it will appeal to educated readers. Think about it: good literary fiction very seldom relies heavily upon a single sentence structure throughout an entire text, does it?

You know what kinds of books use the same types of sentences over and over? The ones marketed to consumers with less-developed reading skills. If that is your target readership, great — run with the repetitive structure. (Run, Jane, run! Don’t let Dick stab, stab, stab.) But for most adult markets, the industry assumes at least a 10th-grade reading level.

In my high school, Ernest Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA was assigned in the 9th grade. If you catch my drift.

Then, too, agency screeners and editorial assistants typically hold liberal arts degrees from pretty darned good colleges. That’s a long, long way from the reading level that was contented to watch Dick and Jane running all over the place with Spot and frogs having fun hop, hop, hopping.

Let your structural choices be as exciting as the writing contained within them — and let your voice emerge as more than a repetitive collection of your favorite words and sentences. Incorporate your pet structures and phrases, by all means, but have them appear rarely enough that they will seem like revelations, not just narrative-as-usual.

Above all, keep mixing up those sentence structures. You may be pleasantly surprised at how much interest merely preventing a sentence from reading like the one before it can produce.

And try not to mourn too much for last year’s Christmas tree. It will twinkle all the brighter in our memories for having been unique. Keep up the good work!

Phrases a savvy writer should not touch with a hundred-foot pole

Hello, campers —

I’m planning on posting a lovely, long post this evening, an in-depth answer to a reader’s intelligent question about writing clichés, but until the dark and no doubt stormy night allows me to suggest that perhaps you have all been wondering why I asked you all here, let me state here and now that the murder is — BANG!

Just kidding. Seriously, I’ve been swamped the last couple of days (speaking of editorial clichés), and I want to devote some serious time to this important and under-discussed topic. Rather than leave you pining for a fresh post another twelve or fifteen hours (or longer, should I decide to do something radical like take a nap before blogging next), I’m rerunning a post from last February. Not only does it strike me as a perfect lead-in to any discussion of hackneyed phrases and concepts, but it addresses an extremely common professional readers’ pet peeve: manuscripts that misappropriate or misuse the aforementioned well-worn tropes.

Oh, and I’m going to nag you a little on submission strategy first. So fasten your seatbelts, everybody — it’s going to be a bumpy night day. Enjoy!

Can we talk?

Actually, I’ve been meaning to bring this up for quite some time now, but the moment never seemed quite right. You were gearing up to send out a flotilla of queries, perhaps, or were intent upon getting a submission out the door. Maybe we were all focused upon how to prep a writing contest entry, a verbal pitch, or a synopsis.

In short, there always seemed to be something more pressing than having this painful discussion. But as your writing advisor and, I’d like to think, your friend, I just can’t stand around and watch you hurting yourself any longer without saying something. I say this with love, but you’ve been engaging in self-destructive behavior, behavior that is making it harder for you to land an agent, get published, and get your good writing in front of the readership it deserves.

Oh, I see you roll your eyes. It’s easy, isn’t it, to blame a system stacked against the new writer? But this is something you are doing to yourself, I’m afraid, something as lethal to your manuscript’s marketability as taking a match and setting it on fire instead of mailing it to the agent who requested it.

I refer, of course, to the average aspiring writer’s addiction to sending out requested materials without taking the time to proofread them — or having someone else proofread them.

I’m not even talking about the to-my-mind deplorable practice of submitting those pages before reading them IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD — although as I may have mentioned several hundred times before in this very forum, that’s the single best way to catch typos, dropped words, logic problems, half-revised sentences, and the fact that your protagonist’s hated coworker was called Tisha for the first 57 pages, Patricia in Chapters 4, 8, 17, and parts of 24, and Trish for the rest of the book. I’m talking about just assuming that a quick computerized spell-check will be sufficient because, hey, you’ve got a busy life.

Or, as is common with contest entries that need to be postmarked by a certain date and time, performing it when one is so tired that one inadvertently hits the REPLACE ALL button instead of IGNORE ALL. The result: 300 pages in which political coalitions are invariably described as political cotillions, leaving the poor judge in that historical fiction contest to wonder why nobody ever seems to be dancing.

Or, even more common, dispensing with even the computerized spell-check in your eagerness to get the pages a real, live agent has requested sent off before another sunset has passed. Never mind that Millicent the agency screener is unlikely to have any sympathy whatsoever for your unfortunate habit of consistently mistyping receive with the e and the i inverted, or the fact that somehow, you missed the day of English class when the difference between there, their, and they’re was clarified beyond any risk of future confusion. You had been working on that manuscript for years — you simply couldn’t bear to wait the additional few hours it would take to proof those requested pages.

Oh, it’s all quite understandable. Speaking as someone who reads manuscripts for a living and has served as a writing contest judge, however, it’s also completely understandable that a professional reader might reject those pages on the basis of all of those typos alone.

Yes, you read that correctly: it’s not at all uncommon for a professional reader to stop reading at the second or third typo, skipped word, or grammatical problem. So if you are not routinely proofreading your work before you submit it or enter it in a contest — or having some sharp-eyed soul do it — you may well be dooming your manuscript to rejection.

So I ask you: what are you actually gaining by not taking the time to make sure that your pages are clean?

A clean manuscript, for the benefit of those of you new to the term, is industry-speak for a manuscript completely devoid of misspelled words, grammatical gaffes, dropped words, incorrect punctuation, logic problems, formatting errors, clichés, or any of the many, many other small errors that make those of us trained to read for a living grit our teeth because we see them so very often. Indeed, Millicents and contest judges are often specifically instructed to consider seriously only clean manuscripts.

What happens to the rest, you ask with fear and trembling? They are subjected to the most common word in our Millie’s vocabulary: “Next!”

Why? Well, several reasons — and far better ones than you might expect.

The first and most straightforward: if a manuscript is riddled with errors, some luckless soul is going to have to fix them all before an agent could possibly submit it to an editor with any hope of placing it successfully. The same holds true for a submission to a publishing house: copyediting is very time-consuming and costs real money. And few literary contests will want their good names sullied by awarding top honors to an entry that looks as though the entrant conceived of it 24 hours before the contest deadline, typed it with fingers blurring across the keyboard, and ran panting to the post office three minutes before it closed.

Nobody, but nobody, likes to read a first draft. And I say that as a writer who once actually did pull together a literary contest entry — the first chapter of a book, synopsis, and entry form — in 23 hours and 32 minutes.

I won, too, despite the never-sufficiently-to-be-deplored typo on page 17. Do as I say, not as I did.

Why? Well, to a professional reader — like, say, Millicent, her boss the agent, the editor to whom the agent might conceivably sell your book, or a contest judge — all of these seemingly little writing problems are not merely the hallmark of a writer in a hurry or easily-fixed trivialities that merely mar the surface of the deep, deep pool that is a brilliantly-written story, annoying but not particularly important. They are a sign that the writer is not professional enough to realize that this is an industry in which spelling does in fact count.

Or that presentation in general counts. One of the hallmarks of an aspiring writer who has yet to learn much about how publishing works is an apparent belief that agents and editors sit around all day, casually reading through submissions and acquiring any that happen to catch their fancy.

“Oh, this writer has promise,” these fantasy pros murmur over their snifters of warm cognac as they leisurely turn pages, perched on intricately tufted chaise longues. “He can’t spell, but that’s easily fixed at the editorial stage. I’m so fascinated by this story and the voice in which it is written that I’m just going to ignore the fact that the writer clearly didn’t bother to read his own book. I’m going to read it until the very last word of the very last page before I make up my mind about it, but I have a strong feeling that the answer is going to be yes.”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but that’s simply not how professional readers operate: they just don’t have time to read every submission in its entirety. Nor could they possibly take on every writing project that tickled their fancy. An agent or editor who routinely embraced projects without thinking about her ability to sell them would soon be out of a job, after all.

As a direct result, the fine folks who work in agencies and publishing houses look first for reasons to reject manuscripts, scouring each line for problems. Only those submissions that pass this scrutiny for hundreds of pages stand a chance of getting picked up. Even setting the bar this high, a well-respected agency or contest will still receive so many perfectly clean (or nearly so), nicely-written submissions that they can afford to reject everything else.

I sense some trembling hands tentatively raised out there. “What do you mean by scouring each line?” some of you quaver, thinking perhaps of that writing sample you entered into that online submission form without proofreading. “It would be impossibly time-consuming to read an entire manuscript that closely, especially with the high volume of submissions the average agency receives. Why, the only way they could possibly pull it off would be to stop reading when they encounter a problem, and move on to the next one.”

That’s precisely what they do. Oh, not necessarily at the first problem, but certainly before the fourth or fifth.

Was that great whooshing sound that just deafened us all the result of half of you gasping as you frantically tried to open your manuscript files to begin revising them? A clean manuscript suddenly sounds like a very, very desirable thing, doesn’t it?

That’s a smart orientation. The competition for those very few client openings at agencies — and even fewer new author openings at publishing houses — is unbelievably fierce, far too fierce to expect a charitable reading.

Millicent forms the first line of defense — I feel you cringing, but that’s how agents and editors think of her — against the blizzard of submissions battering against their mailroom doors. Even an agent unusually hungry for clients usually can take on only three or four a year. That means, in practical terms, that for every submission she approves, there are hundreds she or her Millicent must reject.

The same holds true for queries, of course. Except that for hundreds, substitute tens of thousands.

Fortunately for Millicent (but unfortunately for writers), most submissions honestly are self-rejecting. How so? Well, one of the most popular methods is by combining improper formatting with a few typos on page 1.

You know, the sort of thing that the combination of a little research into how the publishing industry works and a few minutes of proofreading would easily have caught. To Millicent, a writer who hasn’t put in the time to do either isn’t ready for the publishing world. The hypercritical way that professional readers scrutinize manuscripts might kill him.

Which is to say: a savvy writer expects her future agent and editor to expect a completely clean manuscript every time. Yes, even when the writer has only three weeks to revise the last quarter of the book because a new editor has just taken over the project from the acquiring editor, and the newbie has some exciting new ideas about plot resolution.

Oh, it happens. To an agent, a good client is a flexible client.

Which brings me to another excellent reason Millicent is specifically trained to regard a clean manuscript as the minimum requirement for serious consideration: a client who does not proofread (or possess the skills to do it well) is inherently more time-consuming for an agency to represent than one who habitually produces clean manuscripts. While an established author can get away with being high-maintenance, one trying to break into the biz for the first time cannot.

Oh, an agent expects to hold a new client’s hand a little; submitting to publishing houses can be a long, drawn-out, and extremely stressful process. But if that client cannot be relied upon to provide the agent with clean pages, who is going to end up proofing them?

The agent, that’s who. See why she might instruct her Millicent to select clients likely to spare her the trouble? Or why if the writer hasn’t bothered to read this manuscript, why should I? is such a common mantra amongst professional readers?

Or, to be blunt about it, why I saw fit to stage an intervention for those of you who aren’t already scrutinizing your submissions to prevent them from falling into this most common of self-rejection pitfalls?

To be fair, though, not all rejection-triggers would necessarily turn up in a quick proofreading — or even when reading a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. Often, for instance, writers new to the game will miss another of Millicent’s pet peeves, the use of clichés.

Or, an even surer professional reader-annoyer, the misuse of clichés.

That caused some of you to do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” you cry, rubbing your sore necks, “isn’t a misused cliché not a cliché, by definition? Doesn’t it at least have the charm of surprise?”

Yes and no, in that order — to professional readers, at least. Allow me to explain.

Since so many aspiring writers are under the mistaken impressions that (a) dialogue in a book should read precisely like conversations in real life, despite the fact that most real-world conversations are so repetitious that they would plunge readers into profound slumber, (b) a narrative voice should sound like the way someone might actually talk, regardless of whether the narration is in the first person or not, and/or (c) an essential tactic for achieving either (a) or (b) is to incorporate those pat little catchphrases most speakers use into one’s writing, discovering clichés on the submission page is the norm, not the exception.

Because writers who embrace (a), (b), or (c) believe — and with some reason — that there is inherent virtue in echoing everyday speech, they usually don’t think of these common phrases as clichés. Let’s take a gander at a few dozen of them in action.

Jeremy strode through the door, bold as brass. “Hey, Mom. It’s raining cats and dogs out there.” He mussed little Tad’s hair as he passed; the boy was glued to the family’s pride and joy, the new black-and-white TV. “Hey, shrimp. Where’s the beef?”

“Blow it out your ear,” Tad snarled without taking his eyes off the nine-inch screen. His Davy Crockett cap had slid off his head onto his cowboy suit. His discarded hula-hoop rested on top of the crumpled Twister set and a signed photo of Marilyn Monroe. “And sit on it. It’s almost Howdy Doody time.”

Betsy rolled her eyes, gritted her teeth, and shrugged her shoulders. Playing host family to a time-traveling teen from 1984 wasn’t as easy as pie, despite what the brochure had promised. But then, you couldn’t believe everything you read. Let the buyer beware. “Does that mean it’s time to put on the feedbag? I’ve been slaving over a hot stove all day, waiting for you to traipse through that door.”

Jeremy had already tuned her out: his Walkman, whatever that was, was turned up too high. One day, she was going to smack him upside the head and give him a piece of her mind.

“You’ll go deaf from all that noise,” she shouted at him. “And don’t sit so close to the TV, Tad; you’ll ruin your eyes. My goodness, if I had a dime for every time I’ve told you…”

Jeremy rolled his eyes like James Dean, as all the kids seemed to be doing these days. He seemed to expect the world — or at least his supper — to be handed to him on a silver platter. When she was a girl, walking to school through three feet of snow, year in, year out, rain or shine, come hell or high water, without fail, her mother would have given her what for if she had flounced into the house like a movie star. Just who did he think he was?

“Just wait ’til your father gets home,” she muttered under her breath.

Granddad shuffled into the kitchen, shoving his false teeth into his mouth, clutching his low-hanging pants, and longing for the return of the Taft Administration. “Is dinner ready yet? I’m starved.”

She sighed, mopping her weary brow. “There’s only so much I can do. I only have two hands. I do and do and do for you people, and this is the thanks I get. A woman’s work is never done.”

The old man caught sight of Jeremy. “Looking sharp, kiddo.” When the boy did not respond, Granddad lifted a speaker from his ear. “Think you’re the cat’s meow, don’t you, you young whippersnapper?”

“Hey, chill.” Jeremy took off his headphones before the old man messed up his ‘do. “You look mahvelous.”

“Marvelous,” Betsy corrected under her breath. “I have such a headache, Dad. The kids have been running me ragged.”

“You think you have a headache? Back in my day, we had headaches.” Granddad peered through the window. “‘Bout time we had some rain. Sure do need it.”

“We sure do,” she agreed, mopping her brow, nodding her head, and nervously playing with her apron while the clouds rolled by. It looked like stormy weather. Still, she could look for the silver lining and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Every time it rained, it rained pennies from heaven. “I’ve been worried sick about Jeremy. Could you find out where he has been while I set the table, since I don’t have a daughter to do it for me, and I can’t ask either of the boys to do it in this time period?”

“Boys will be boys.” Granddad shuffled back to Jeremy. “Where have you been, son? Jitterbugging at the malt shop to that newfangled jazz? Doing the Charleston with some flibbertigibbet with rouged knees and a beaded dress?”

“You should come clubbing with me sometime, Granddad. We are two wild and crazy guys.”

Tad’s curly head popped up behind the couch. “Isn’t that misplaced cultural reference from the 1970s?”

“Mind your own business,” Jeremy growled. “Sometimes, you just gotta say…”

Had enough? Millicent has — and did, by the middle of the second paragraph.

Stock phrases are problematic on the page for much the same reasons that standard polite exchanges are. They’re predictable, and because everyone does say them, a character’s uttering them does not reveal anything about his emotional state, mental gymnastics, or even the situation at hand. (Sorry — once one starts generating hackneyed phrases, it’s hard to stop.)

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that polite chitchat is also a common type of cliché? Because literally anyone might say these phrases, they are the opposite of character-revealing. Take a gander:

“Why, hello there, Gladys,” Ambrose said. “How are you today?”

“Fine. How are you?”

“Fine. How is your husband, Terrence, and your four children, Maude, Eleanor, Franklin Delano, and Frances? All well, I trust.”

“Yes, fine. How’s your cocker spaniel, Macguffin?”

“Oh, fine, fine. Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”

“Very. We could use some rain, though.”

“Sure could use it.”

“Sure could. Ah-choo!”

“Bless you.”

“Thank you.”

“Still have those nasal allergies, eh? They must be quite annoying.”

“Oh, they’re not so bad. At least I don’t have toe fungus.”

“Thank goodness for that. May I hold the door for you? Ladies first.”

“Thanks. Watch out for that puddle.”

“I appreciate your telling me. I wonder how it got here, considering that we haven’t had any rain. O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

“And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Ambrose, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come, here, as before, never, so help you mercy, how strange or odd soe’er I bear myself, as I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on, that you, at such times seeing me, never shall, with arms encumber’d thus, or this headshake, or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase, as ‘Well, well, we know,’ or ‘We could, an if we would,’ or ‘If we list to speak,’ or ‘There be, an if they might,’ or such ambiguous giving out, to note
that you know aught of me: this not to do, so grace and mercy at your most need help you, swear.”

“Whatever you say, Gladys.” Ambrose tipped his hat politely. “Have a good day.”

“You, too, Ambrose.”

Okay, so I got bored enough to throw a slight twist in there. But see how stultifying all of that politeness is on the page?

Once again, I spot some timid hands in the air. “But Anne, isn’t this just what nice people say? And if I want the reader to like my protagonist, don’t I need to show that he’s polite, rather than telling it by some such statement as Nate was a polite guy?”

If you really want to induce Millicent to take a shine to ol’ Nate, I would strongly suggest that you do neither. Most readers will come to dislike a protagonist who bores them, not matter how nice his words or actions are. Since Millicent is paid to get bored a whole lot faster than the ordinary reader (see earlier comments about weeding out as many submissions as possible), her threshold of impatience with nondescript polite conversation is exceedingly low.

I wouldn’t push it. Instead, why not have Nate win her heart by doing and saying unexpected kind things?

“Okay, Anne,” those of you prone to flinging your hands skyward concede reluctantly. “I can see why I might need to trim both the stock phrases and purely polite exchanges. But weren’t you going to tell us about misused clichés?”

Ah, yes, I was, campers; thank you so much for reminding me. And how’s your mother doing?

No, but seriously, folks, while stock phrases bore professional readers, misstatements of these same phrases tend to drive Millicent into apoplexy. While such clichés as it’s a dog-eat-dog world, take another tack, and I couldn’t care less often — and incorrectly — turn up in conversation as it’s a doggie-dog world, take another tact, and the irritatingly immortal I could care less, the only reason to use the incorrect versions on the page would be to make the character saying them seem ignorant, right?

Right? Anyone out there?

Even ironic use is dangerous, though: because Millicent sees these misstatements so often, she’s likely to have a knee-jerk reaction to their appearance. And it’s hard to blame her, isn’t it? Not only do these phrases imply that the writer has a rather poor ear for dialogue, but even had these tropes been rendered correctly, they would still be hackneyed phrases, and thus unoriginal.

Call me zany, but don’t you want Millicent to judge you on your writing, rather than someone else’s?

Then, too, misstated clichés often reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of the original. What would a doggie-dog world look like, anyway? Why bother to mention that someone could care less than he currently does? And while taking a different tack while sailing makes some sense as a metaphor, what would taking a different tact involve? Diplomacy in another language?

My favorite example comes by way of a roommate of mine in graduate school, a young lady who had grown up without a television in the house. She loved stock phrases, but she was perpetually getting them wrong.

“What do you mean, you wouldn’t touch it with a 100-foot pole?” I would cackle. “The standard length is ten. How would you even lift a hundred-foot pole?”

She was also prone to misapplying such metaphors. “I can’t find my keys,” she would say. “They’re like a needle in a haystack.”

“I wish you would tell me how,” I would say, lifting the sofa cushion under which her personal items so often worked themselves. “Not everything that’s lost is like a needle in a haystack, you know.”

She would look as startled as a deer in the head lice. “It isn’t?”

Okay, so perhaps there were some undiagnosed mental health issues involved. And now that I see it in print, as startled as a deer in the head lice may well be my new favorite faux cliché. It’s actually quite evocative of panic, is it not?

But you see the overall point, right? A misused familiar term may well produce a laugh, but even if you are writing comedy, you might want to use it sparingly. In submissions, misappropriated clichés often result in bad laughter, a chuckle at the expense of the story, a giggle that the author did not intend.

Now that you know what such misstatements look like individually, let’s revisit our first example, so you may see how and why they might annoy Millicent on the page.

Jeremy scrod through the door, bold as copper. “Hey, Mom. It’s raining cats and ducks out there.” He missed little Tad’s hair as he passed; the boy was taped to the family’s pride and happiness, the new black-and-white TV. “Hey, petunia. Where’s the mutton?”

“Blow it out your nose,” Tad snarled without taking his gaze off the nine-inch screen. His Daniel Webster cap had slid off his head onto his sailor suit. His discarded Pet Rock rested on top of the Pong remote and a signed photo of Theda Bara. “Sit on something. It’s almost time for the Miniskiteers.”

Betsy rolled her mouth, gritted her ribs, and shrugged her arms. Playing host family to a time-traveling teen from 1984 wasn’t as easy as cake, despite what the brochure had promised. But then, you couldn’t believe everything. Let the biller beware. “Does that mean it’s time to don the fedbag? I’ve been praying over a hot stove all day, waiting for you to lapse through that door.”

Jeremy had already turned her out: his Walkmen, whoever they were, were turned up too high. One day, she was going to smack him beside the head and give him a place of her mind.

“You’ll go deaf from all that sound,” she shouted at him. “And don’t sit so close to the TV, Tad; you’ll ruin your posture. My goodness, if I had an orangutan for every time I’ve told you…”

Jeremy rolled his cigarette like James Dean, as all the kids seemed to be these days. He seemed to expect the world — or at least his supper — to be handled to him on a silver tray. When she was a girl, walking to school through three inches of snow, year in, bear out, rain or more rain, come Milwaukee or high water, without failure, her mother would have given her what for it if she had flounced into the house like a movie preen. Just who did he think he could be?

“Just wait ’til your father gets here,” she muttered under her breathe.

Granddad snuffled into the kitchen, shoving his false teeth into his and clutching his low-hanging tie. “Is dinner prepared yet? I’m staved.”

She sighed, mopping her weary hair. “There’s only so many I can do. I only have two hand. I do and do and do and do and do for your people, and this is the thanks I git. A woman’s work is never down.”

The old man caught sight of Jeremy. “Looking bark, kiddo.” When the boy did not respond, Granddad lifted a speaker from his ear. “Think you’re the cat’s leisure suit, don’t you, you young whipperstinger?”

“Hey, take a bill pill.” Jeremy took off his headphones before the old man messed up his ‘roo. “You look mahvelous.”

“Marvelous,” Betsy corrected under her breath. “I have such a backache, Dad. The kids have been running me rugged.”

“You think you have an ague? Back in the day, we had agues.” Granddad peered through the window. “‘Bout time we accumulated some significant rainfall. Sure do need it.”

“We sure do,” she agreed, mopping her blow, nodding her head, and nervously playing with her ape while the clouds rolled near. It looked like stormy seasons. Still, she could look for the silver pining and the pot of gold at the end of the rainblow. Every time it pains, it pains good fortune. “I’ve been worried ill about Jeremy. Could you find out where he has been while I set the table with silverware, plates, and gasses?”

“Boys well be boys.” Granddad sniffled back to Jeremy. “Where have you been, son? Jitterbeetling at the salt shop to that newfinagled bock-and-roll?”

“You should come with me sometime, Granddad. We are two wild and lazy guys.”

Tad’s curly head popped up behind the couch. “Isn’t that misplaced cultural reference from the 1970s?”

“Mind your own bees’ honey,” Jeremy growled. “Sometimes, you just gotta say what the Buick…”

Have I made my point yet, or do I need to keep greeting that red horse?

In the days to come, I shall be going over more seemingly small Millicent-irritants. Not the big stuff, mind you, but the tiny, niggling narrative choices that make her teeth…well, I was going to say grind, but that would be a cliché. Once you are aware of precisely how and why these tidbits annoy the pros, you may keep an eye out for them while you are proofreading.

That’s while, right, not if? Keep up the good work!